What do I think of Matthew Vines’s book published by Convergent Books? Let’s Plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Matthew Vines has become somewhat of a celebrity in the church for being outspoken about being a homosexual and for making the case that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. His book is an autobiographical look at his life and how he reached his conclusion as well as a look at Scriptural texts that he thinks are relevant to the case. While many times there are those who dismiss the Bible, Vines does do us a favor right at the start by stating where he comes from. On page 1 he says
Like most theologically conservative Christians, I hold what is often called a “high view” of the Bible. That means I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life. While some parts of the Bible address cultural norms that do not directly apply to modern societies, all of Scripture is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)
In this, Vines and I are quite likely to agree as I too hold a high view. What we will disagree with starkly will be our interpretations and as we go through, I wonder how much of this high view Vines has will be consistently upheld. What I also want to be on the watch for is to look and see if it more often happens that experience trumps Scripture.
One aspect I kept wondering about in the book was about the emphasis on homosexuality. Let’s suppose I instead wanted to write “God and the incestual Christian” or “God and the polygamous Christian.” Could I use many of the same arguments? I would wager that in many cases, I could. In fact, were I to argue for this, I could probably make a more convincing case. After all, Paul only condemns one kind of incestual relationship and someone like Abraham married his step-sister. Would Matthew Vines then be open to the possibility of loving and committed incestual relationships?
Vines goes into an autobiographical account early on of how he got here, which is fine for all intents and purposes, but something we must be watchful of. We do not want to get caught in the feeling of the story so much that we let it overpower our reason as we examine the case. Vines shows how he grew up in a conservative home and knew people in school who were gay and seemed normal enough. (What are we to expect? Gay people act totally different in every aspect of life?) He later on in college came to identify himself as a homosexual and then began a process of going through the Bible with that in mind to see what he could say to his parents who would be heartbroken.
Vines says in his book that one other reason he lost confidence in the idea that same-sex relationships were sinful is that it no longer made sense. Perhaps it didn’t, but if we go through and see that this is what the text says, then we are obligated to do it. Would I be justified in breaking the commandment to lust just because it no longer made sense to me? “Yes God. I understand why you don’t want me to sleep with other women than my wife, but hey, looking is natural. It doesn’t make sense to me why I can’t look.” He says the relationships he saw that were committed were characterized by faithfulness, commitment, mutual love, and self-sacrifice and what sin looks like that? Perhaps we could say incestuous relationships would look like that, so again we have to ask if Vines would support the book “God and the Incestuous Christian.”
One of the main passages Vines goes to repeatedly is to say that a tree is known by its fruit and says “Well the fruit of homosexual relationships that are committed is mutual love and self-sacrifice while condemning it leads to the suicide and bullying of many homosexuals.” No doubt, evangelicals across the board would condemn bullying homosexuals and we would agree that homosexual suicide is a tragedy, but are we not getting into the dangers of pragmatism and victimization? Would Vines for instance justify my robbing a bank if I give all the money to the local hospital? After all, look at all the good that came from my action! As for the suicide of homosexuals, could it not be that this is a result of how much sex is put on a huge pedestal in our society where sex is everything? Is this not part of what’s going on when you consider who you sleep with such a major part of your identity. How many times do we see characters in pop culture and such saying “I can’t die a virgin!” or something like that?
Suppose we had a group of men who were married but were depressed because they could not sleep with other women. This great desire came at them everyday and eventually a lot of them just broke and hung themselves rather than face the fact that they could not have polygamous relationships. Would Vines then be in support of looking again at polygamy? Would he be in support of men who hung themselves because they could not have sex with their mother or their sister?
The passage in Matthew 7 is in fact talking about prophets and not about outworkings of teachings. I take it that the message is that if someone is truly a prophet of God, their message will line up with Scripture. If my interpretation is correct, and I consider that much more likely, then if Vines fails in his case, then it is in fact him who is the one producing the bad fruit by encouraging us to hold to a wrong interpretation of Scripture. We should keep this in mind especially since I said earlier we can’t go by experience, an insight Vines agrees with since on page 24 he tells us that experience is subjective and prone to error as a judge of truth.
Vines tries to compare the case of homosexuality being okay to the case of the Earth going around the sun. The problem was that we can see quite simply how the text is being misread in those accounts. (He’s also wrong about the people thinking being at the center of the universe was a good thing. It wasn’t. God was seen as being on the outer circles.) Vines will have to have incredibly strong evidence to show that 2,000 years of church reading has been wrong.
Vines does still want us to think about our own experience with sexuality. Can we point to a specific moment where we chose to be attracted to members of the opposite sex? Well no. Can a person with depression point to a specific moment where they chose to be depressed? Can a person with PTSD point to a specific moment where they chose to have PTSD? I am one who once struggled with panic attacks and I can tell you there is no one specific moment where I chose to have panic attacks. It is part of this idea that if you did not choose to have something, then you were born with it. Why should I believe that? I do not think people would generally choose to be homosexual any more than they would to have PTSD or depression or panic attacks.
Let’s move on to Scriptural interpretations. Vines looks at Matthew 19 and says that only those who have the gift of celibacy should abstain from sexual unions. Vines says that Jesus or Paul never enjoined homosexuals to lifelong celibacy nor did they endorse redefining marriage. Of course not because there was no need to. Jesus stood behind a solid interpretation of the Old Testament and in fact at any point where it came to the morality of the Old Testament, Jesus raised the bar. You don’t murder? Good. How are you doing with hating your brother? You don’t commit adultery? Good. How are you doing at not looking at women to lust after them?
So in the end, it looks like Vines is saying that if homosexuals don’t have the gift of celibacy, then they should not stay celibate, and if they should not stay celibate, they should marry one another. How does such a view work? Are we to say that if Jesus met someone who burned with passion for his mother and did not think he had the gift of celibacy, that Jesus would okay him marrying his mother? Are we to think Paul would think someone who burned with passion for multiple women should in fact be okay with polygamous relationships? If the Corinthian church had written back and said that the man who was in an incestual relationship with his stepmother burned with passion and did not have the gift of celibacy then we would expect Paul would say “Well why didn’t you say so earlier? Sure. Let him have that relationship.”
Amazingly, Vines goes from here to 1 Timothy 4 and speaks of false teachers who will forbid marriage. Yet when Paul talked about marriage, he had something specific in mind. Again, would this verse be able to be used by people wanting incestual marriage? How about people wanting polygamous marriage?
Let’s move on to Sodom. Now I do think inhospitality can be included on the list of why Sodom was destroyed, but Vines is too quick to say that Bible scholars on both sides have dismissed homosexuality as the sin of Sodom. Robert Gagnon, for instance, has plenty of material on the sin of Sodom and he would certainly include homosexuality. This includes how Ezekiel uses language from the holiness code of Leviticus and the language of abomination that is used in Leviticus 20:13.
Amusingly, Vines also goes to Jude 7 and says the men were pursuing sarkos heteras which is translated as other flesh and says the problem was that they were too much pursuing flesh that was different. Gagnon questions such an interpretation of the passage and rightly points out that the men did not know that the visitors were angels. As Gagnon says
According to Jude 7 the men of Sodom “committed sexual immorality (ekporneusasai) and went after other flesh.” Jones is correct in thinking that “went after other flesh” refers to sex with the angelic visitors but fails in his assumption that “committed sexual immorality” has the same referent. Jude 7 is an instance of parataxis: two clauses conjoined by ‘and’ where one is conceptually subordinated to the other. Jones follows other homosexualist interpretations in assuming the meaning as “they committed sexual immorality by going after other flesh.” But a paratactic construction in Greek can just as easily make the first clause subordinate; in this case, “by (or: in the course of) committing sexual immorality they went after other flesh.” In other words, in the process of attempting the sexually immoral act of having intercourse with other men, the men of Sodom got more than they bargained for: committing an offense unknowingly against angels (note the echo in Heb 13:2: “do not neglect hospitality to strangers for, because of this, some have entertained angels without knowing it”). This is apparently how the earliest ‘commentator’ of Jude 7 read it. For 2 Peter 2:6-7, 10 refers to the “defiling desire/lust” of the men of Sodom. Since the men of Sodom did not know that the male visitors were angels—so not only Gen 19:4-11 but also all subsequent ancient interpreters—the reference cannot be to a lust for angels but rather must be to a lust for men. So both Jude 7 and 2 Pet 2:6-7 provide further confirmation in the history of interpretation that the Sodom narrative is correctly interpreted when one does not limit the indictment of male homosexual relations to coercive forms.
Thus, I do not find what Vines says to be convincing. Are there other sins going on in the text besides homosexuality? Yes. There definitely are. Is homosexuality a sin that is going on in the text? Yes. It definitely is.
Let’s move on to Leviticus.
Vines is right that there are many OT laws that we do not follow because they were never placed on us. However, there are plenty that we do still follow. “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus after all. Vines wants to ask how much of this still applies. He looks to Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18 which speak of sex while a woman is menstruating. However, the punishment is being cut off. The punishment for other offenses in Leviticus 20 meanwhile is death. The idea of the menstrual cycle is to give a woman rest instead of rather letting her be treated like an object. Israelites did consider uncovering blood to be shameful and that would mean more quarantine. There is no such statement on homosexuality which meant death.
Vines also wants to look at what else the OT doesn’t condemn such as polygamy and concubinage and it allows for divorce. Sure, but like many other systems, we must keep in mind Leviticus was not meant to bring us Heaven on Earth nor was any of the Torah. God starts with Israel where they are. We’re even told 2 Samuel 12:7-8 would have allowed for more wives, but is that what it says?
7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. 8 I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.
Israel was not to go past the bounds of the lands of Israel and Judah. Why would God then give more? Or is it saying that God was ready to bless David abundantly and all that Saul had had transferred over to David when Saul died and God would have been willing to give even more. This is not speaking about just wives but of the whole idea of more than Saul had would have belonged to David. The whole problem with Vines’s argument is he assumes that these practices are abandoned, so maybe the others. Sure. Maybe bestiality has been abandoned. Jesus and Paul say nothing about it. Maybe child sacrifice has been abandoned. Maybe incest has been abandoned. How far do we go?
Vines is right that different words are used to speak of abominations, but in the text in Leviticus, it all comes from the holiness code. It can refer to ritual uncleanliness, but it can also refer to moral wickedness and the text is quite clear with saying that whoever does this gets death. This is more than just ritual uncleanliness. Vines tries to get around the idea of the death penalty by saying we consider many punishments excessive. Perhaps we do, but this is the standard God set for the nation of Israel and it won’t work to say “This seems excessive to us, so surely it isn’t so great a sin.”
In the end, I frankly look at Vines’s statements and wonder what on Earth is being condemned in Leviticus. It’s as if we’re told that this was once worthy of death, but today it’s no big deal. In fact, today we should celebrate it. That will require a look at the New Testament. Let’s go there. Vines sees Romans 1 as the most important passage for discussion so let’s see what we make of his argument there.
Vines is of course correct that some matters are cultural. For instance, we have ended slavery, but slaves in the time were expected to serve their masters honorably and with respect. Men and women could greet one another with a holy kiss in church, but today you could get a lawsuit for that one. (Although I do try to tell my wife during greeting time that we should greet one another with a holy kiss.) The question is not “Are there cultural commands?” The question is “Is Romans 1 an example?”
I do not think so because Romans 1 also points back to Genesis 1 and 2. You have numerous tie-ins in the text. You have terminology not elsewhere used such as creator, creation, and male and female. The description of the creatures also matches the descriptions found in Genesis 1. Paul is referring back to creation. What he is saying is that idolatry is a blatant example of getting the vertical relationship wrong. In idolatry, one takes that which is the creation and treats it like the creator. In the same way for Paul, homosexuality is an example on the horizontal level. One takes the body clearly meant to be used sexually with members of the opposite sex, and instead uses it with members of the same sex. Vines instead sees it as the condemnation of excess rather than moderation of the desires.
But Paul does not allow that. Paul says the desires themselves are shameful and there is no indication that he thought only a little bit would have been okay. One would in fact wonder why if same-sex behavior was truly a good thing Paul would say to not have too much of it. We don’t see that going on with heterosexuals since in 1 Cor. 7, Paul urges us to NOT abandon the coming together of ourselves. Paul says nothing about the intentions of the act or the frequency. He says the act and the desire themselves are both wrong. Again, I find Vines just straining.
Let’s move on to 1 Cor. 6. The question is over the two words that are used. Vines wishes to say the term Malakoi refers to effeminate men, but will this stand up? Let’s look at how this holds up. The passage reads as follows:
Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men
All of this is about sexual immorality as idolatry always carried with it a notion of sexual misbehavior. In this case, the malakoi has been used elsewhere to refer to people who allow themselves to be the passive partner in a homosexual relationship. This shows up in the writings of Soranus and Pseudo-Aristotle. Meanwhile, the next term arsenokoitai is in fact a term that comes from two words in the LXX that come from Lev. 18:22 and 20:13, the passages about homosexuality, and it is a combination of “lying” and “male”. No. This doesn’t refer to all men are liars, but to the act of sexually lying with someone. Vines wants to suggest that Paul could have in mind pederasty, but there were words specifically referring to that if Paul had wanted to say that.
Vines goes on in the book to argue further about how we should change society in light of this, but I do not find this at all convincing since his arguments are just extremely weak. Despite his idea of wanting to be open and friendly, he does cast a gauntlet down when he says on pages 161-2 that “It is the church that is sinning against them by rejecting their intimate relationships.” So apparently, Vines is making it clear. We either accept homosexuals as they are or else we are sinning.
He closes also with seeds of a modern reformation with three people who have been influential in supporting homosexual relationships, two are evangelical and one of those is an evangelical scholar. The interesting aspect is none of these stories starts with a look at Scripture by itself. It all starts with people having emotional reasons to want to embrace homosexuality, such as the first who made a good friend who was a homosexual and the evangelical having a child who was homosexual. Again, I am convinced that experience is trumping Scripture.
In conclusion, Vines puts forward a better argument than most, but one that is lacking, but he deserves to be answered. I encourage others to read Gagnon as well in response to Vines and those that he cites and I look forward to the day when there is a Vines-Gagnon debate.